Strong words 

Save Wiyabi Project stands up for American Indian women

Five years ago, Jessa Rae Growing Thunder dreamt that red words written in her native language had suddenly appeared on her arms.

“I was walking along and something didn’t feel right,” recalls the 23-year-old member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. “I felt a sense of hurt.”

The dream stuck with Growing Thunder when she enrolled in classes at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. By the time judges at the Gathering of Nations powwow crowned the outspoken young woman Miss Indian World last spring, Growing Thunder had transformed her dream into a powerful social media campaign, one that today is both uniting and supporting indigenous women across the country.

Wiyabi is an Assiniboine word for “woman.” Growing Thunder and her long-time friend Lauren Chief Elk, an Assiniboine from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, launched the Save Wiyabi Project last March to raise awareness about what they see as an unchecked epidemic of sexual and domestic violence plaguing American Indian women. According to the Department of Justice, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than non-Native women.

“Non-Native offenders, they have the right to go onto tribal territory and abuse, rape—verbally, emotionally abuse,” Growing Thunder says. “They do all of these things and the sad realization about it is most tribal territories don’t even have the authority to protect these women.”

Save Wiyabi uses grassroots activism and social media, including Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, to push for legal and social change. Since its inception, the project has received countless emails from women all over the country who are attracted to its message of empowerment.

“We never really thought of how far it would go,” Growing Thunder says. “When we started we said, ‘As long as we can help one woman out there know that she’s not alone and to feel some kind of empowerment...then we were a success.’”

A cornerstone of the Save Wiyabi Project’s campaign is its images. Drawing from Growing Thunder’s dream, they feature pictures of young indigenous women who wear white tank tops and beaded chokers. Red words, including “fight,” “save” and “strong” are painted on their arms and chests.

“The whole concept is sometimes we forget how strong we are,” Growing Thunder says during a phone interview from Durango. “Sometimes we need to be reminded.”

Before launching the Save Wiyabi Project, both Chief Elk and Growing Thunder were in abusive relationships. When sharing their experiences with friends and family, the women were shocked to learn that such experiences are commonplace.

“It’s hard to find another Native person out there who hasn’t experienced this on some level,” Growing Thunder says. “We’ve all seen it.”

Fueling that trend, Growing Thunder says, is a prosecutorial void that exists on reservations. While DOJ statistics have found that non-Natives are responsible for more than 80 percent of all rapes and sexual assaults against American Indian women, tribal courts don’t have authority to prosecute non-Native offenders.

“There are no consequences,” says Chief Elk, who’s 25 and now lives in San Francisco. “The Native people can’t protect themselves legally and that leaves these populations of people very vulnerable.”

The federal government typically has jurisdiction over domestic violence and sexual assault prosecutions perpetuated by non-Natives on reservation lands. According to a 2010 Government Accountability report, U.S. attorneys between 2005 and 2009 declined to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse allegations brought forward from Indian Country. A 2007 report from Amnesty International titled “Maze of Injustice” pointed to a “systemic failure to punish” victimizers and “official indifference” to “dignity, security and justice” of American Indian women.

The issue is especially timely as the Senate this week deliberated the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. First passed by Congress in 1994, VAWA authorized funding to help pay for investigations and prosecutions of cases involving violence against women. In 2011, an attempt to tack on provisions to VAWA that would authorize tribal courts to prosecute non-Native individuals became a major sticking point. The Senate approved the provisions, but the House did not.

Those differences contributed to the legislation stalling until the new Congress convened this year. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, is again asking his congressional colleagues to reauthorize VAWA and, while doing so, expand authority to tribal courts.

While supporters like Chief Elk say that Congress faces a moral imperative to protect indigenous women by expanding tribal authority to prosecute, detractors warn that Leahy’s legislation could tread on constitutional protections. They also say that non-Natives should not be subjected to a governmental authority that they have no power to shape.

As was the case in 2012, Chief Elk and others are predicting that, even though the legislation passed the Senate, it could get held up in the House.

As the debate plays out in Washington, D.C., Growing Thunder and Chief Elk will ramp up their efforts to educate mainstream Americans about VAWA’s importance to the tribal community. They’re calling on Native women to participate in a global day of action on Valentine’s Day that’s being held in conjunction with One Billion Rising. “We need to come together,” Chief Elk says.

In Missoula, One Billion Rising is hosting events on the University of Montana Campus Oval between noon and 1 p.m. and at 6 p.m. in Caras Park.

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